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Hawkins: Dow Is 'All In' to Help Business Community Solve Global Sustainability Challenges

On Wednesday, Dow Chemical Company announced an ambitious set of 2025 Sustainability Goals, which it said were designed to redefine the role of business in society. Among the new commitments: developing breakthrough product innovations, positively impacting the lives of 1 billion people, and delivering $1 billion in cost savings or new cash flow for the Company by valuing nature in business decisions and advancing a circular economy.

I caught up with Neil Hawkins, Dow’s Corporate Vice President and Chief Sustainability Officer, to hear his insights into the goals, the importance of multi-sector collaboration in achieving them, and the depth of Dow’s commitment to finding commercially viable solutions for the sustainability challenges threatening the global business community.

One of your goals involves “developing a societal blueprint … for which Dow will engage in 100 significant dialogues across the public and private sector and establish 10 new collaborations.” Can you give some examples of the types of collaborations that could come into play?

Neil Hawkins: When we talk about collaborations, our experience with these things is going big, going large. So when we talk about 10 significant collaborations, think about things like the TNC/Dow collaboration; the collaboration we have with the University of Michigan, trying to redefine the interdisciplinary study and practice that’s needed to develop the sustainability leaders of tomorrow – big collaborations of that type.

But if you’ve ever formed a collaboration like this, these things take a lot of dialogue - you’ve got to find the right partners with mutual goals. And so we figure it will take 100 significant, real dialogues – the TNC/Dow collaboration took us almost a year to negotiate; the Michigan/Dow took a year to negotiate. So we’re going to do a lot of listening with a lot of people – NGOs, government, community, value chain partners – and at the end of that, 10 years from now, we’re hoping and expecting to see 10 vibrant, high-impact collaborations.

Another goal involves developing “six major projects that facilitate the world’s transition to a circular economy.” You recently completed a pilot around turning plastic waste into fuel – are there examples of other circular economy projects already in the pipeline?

NH: Our Dow plastics team are real leaders in trying to close the loop, so I’m sure they have other examples, but to be clear, we don’t have all of these things pre-identified. We’re open to collaborating and finding circular economy examples. And it’s not just plastics waste – we’re also looking at water: We’re recycling 10 million liters of water per day at [Dow’s plant in] Terneuzen in the Netherlands, where we take the output from the water treatment plant – it’s an excellent carbon footprint reduction because you don’t have to desalinate the water; and we integrated our Freeport, Texas plant with the Lake Jackson, Texas water treatment plant, so there we have some excellent water circular economy examples.

And in the energy space – we have a long history in energy; in fact, our founder held patents with George Westinghouse on cogeneration, which is the use of waste heat from one process in another process. So we’re looking at energy waste, cogeneration opportunities, plastic waste, and trying to define new paths for dealing with the waste challenges we all care about.

So we don’t have it pre-set, but that’s what’s so fun and exciting about these goals – our businesses are really looking forward to digging in with customers and local communities to make a difference.

Another goal centers around net positive products that “will offset three times more CO2, and save three times more energy, than they emit throughout their life cycle” – do you see that happening through new products or fine-tuning of existing products?

NH: We have many examples of current products that achieve these kinds of results. What we’re committing to is, ensuring that our whole R&D portfolio - which is about $1.6B per year - it already is, but we want to get even more targeted in water, food, greenhouse gases, etc and look across the whole life cycle. If we can make that work, and I believe we can – this is a commitment of our VP of R&D to ensure that this happens – the sky’s the limit. And over 10 years, we’ll see thousands of new products.

You know, we have one of the most productive research programs in the world – we have amongst the largest number of patents granted to any company in the world – and with that being focused on helping sustainable development, I’m very optimistic we’re going to make a difference with new products. But our existing products are good as well.

Let me [say], because I think it’s important to members of Sustainable Brands: When we say that we’re doing research in innovation, it’s not in a vacuum – we want to do that in collaboration with our customers and the value chain. So the materials science and the chemistry challenges of the SB community – that is the sweet spot that we want to focus on. We’re trying to solve the energy challenges, energy-efficiency challenges, renewable energy challenges, water challenges, waste challenges, etc of our customers through our innovation and know-how. So it’s that coupling of our science and technology, our passion for sustainable development and our collaboration with customers and the value chain that will actually make a big difference.

What is your first priority or what are you personally most excited about when it comes to working to meet these goals?

NH: That’s a hard question to answer because I’ve been intimately involved with all of it and have different parts that I care a lot about. If I had to choose one part, I’m most excited about the blueprint – because the blueprint really brings together our science and technology, our passion for sustainable development, our scale. When Dow does something like our renewable energy deal in Texas - it’s the largest renewable energy [buy] of any manufacturing company ever - it’s big and it can make a difference. So I think the idea and the reality of us putting our will and our expertise and our passion behind finding prototypes and new ways of doing things that are more sustainable that can be scaled up, in value chain, with governments and NGOs … We want to put ourselves into the arena and help find and define these opportunities for redefining the way business contributes to sustainable development.

Any final thoughts for the SB community?

NH: It’s going to take all of us together, all of the companies in the value chain working together, putting our best efforts together to find more sustainable approaches, and Dow has declared now through these goals that we’re willing to be all in, trying to help find commercially viable solutions for all the sustainability challenges that are threatening the value chain – be it in recycling of packaging, chemical technologies and products, water and provision of drinking water, energy and conservation, renewable energy, healthy products – I mean, we’re all in. And we have a very big toolbox of options for companies, and we want to collaborate, we want to find prototypes and we’re here to be a partner. We’re open to bringing our innovation engine to the table.

Jennifer Elks is Managing Editor at Sustainable Brands. She is a writer, editor and foodie who is passionate about improving food systems, closing loops and creating more livable cities. She loves cooking, wine, cooking with wine, correcting spelling errors in… [Read more about Jennifer Elks]

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